Nine-lifers: Felines, inmates share time
Nine-lifers: Felines, inmates share time at state penitentiary
Henderson Gleaner, Kentucky - November 24, 2006
By BRETT BARROUQUERE, Associated Press
EDDYVILLE - With his gray and white streaked hair and cool attitude, Gunnar has the run of the yard at the Kentucky State Penitentiary.
Inmates offer him food, give him space when he wants it and company when he seeks it out.
Gunnar is a cat - one of about 15 that live on the prison yard at the penitentiary along Lake Barkley in western Kentucky. The nine-lifers, strays that slipped beneath the fence and have taken up residence, are cared for and fed by inmates, who look for homes on the outside for some of the cats and their kittens, while making the others pets inside the prison.
The "Eddyville Cats" as the inmates call them are an informal rehabilitation and animal placement program at the prison - not endorsed by the prison administration, but not stopped either.
Inmate Clayton Cawood, who is serving 15 years for multiple drug and violent offenses in eastern Kentucky, said the cats are therapeutic, allowing the inmates to realize they can care for and about something other than themselves.
"These cats, all they want is to be fed and loved on," said Cawood, 34.
And, the cats do get fed and loved on. Inmates buy cat food and scout out potential homes for the kittens among family members, prison staff and inmates being released. Inmates have been known to pool their limited funds - they make at most 80 cents a day - to pay for medical care for a cat that is injured or sick.
With no animal shelter or Humane Society in Lyon County, the inmates are the cats' best bet for finding a permanent home - either inside or outside the stone and concrete walls of the prison.
And the criteria for paroling a cat is simple.
"You find somebody that really wants a cat," said Floyd Cook, 53, who is serving a life sentence for a long list of offenses including rape and taking part in the 1986 riot at the penitentiary. "It's all about the cats."
Kelly Oliver, who is in charge of special programs at the prison, took one of the prison cats home and said the animal is as friendly as can be.
"It's great," said Oliver, 26. "I love her."
Prison officials live with the idea the cats are on the grounds and the inmates have pets, but make no special accommodations for them, other than allowing the inmates to buy cat food, said Nancy Doom, an assistant warden at the prison. The cats are kept outside, regardless of weather, and inmates are encouraged to find homes for them, Doom said.
Having the cats around means sometimes bending the prison rules a bit. Inmates will leave small bowls or plastic foam cups with cat food in it around the recreation yard.
"We don't necessarily support that, but it's not unusual," Doom said.
On the prison yard, inmates can be seen holding the cats, rubbing them, talking to them and playing with them, sometimes shaking a bird's feather for the cat. During a fight between two cats, inmates gather around and yell "Break it up! Break it up!"
But, the cats do have a noticeable affect on the inmates, Doom said.
"You can see that compassion and respect for a living being because they have something to take care of," Doom said. "That's their child. That is their baby."
Some inmates receive pictures and notes when their cats are paroled to the outside. That's the case with Cawood, who has seen Knothead, Wolf and Lil' Buddy leave prison and now cares for a long-haired cat named Katie.
"Some guys, every minute they're out in the yard, they're with a cat," Cawood said. "They'll miss meals because they're playing with a cat."
Cook, who currently is the caretaker of Buzz, a 5-year-old who is the dean of the Eddyville Cats, said inmates become very attached to certain cats.
"Before he gets too old, I'll probably have one of his sons, too," said Cook, who was also caretaker to Buzz's father and grandfather.